One of the major frustrations faced by British expats living in Spain is their inability to communicate with the Spanish. Of course, different groups will be more affected than others. It is a major problem for those seeking employment and people who have children attending local Spanish schools, more than retirees.
It is true that if we compare ourselves with foreigners from other countries living in Spain, the British appear to be the least successful at learning Spanish. For example, most of the Scandinavians, under the age of sixty can converse quite comfortably in Spanish at the fish counter in the supermarket, not to mention their near native command in the English language.
I find it bizarre how some of the most academically, intelligent British people, I know, simply cannot get beyond the concept of masculine and feminine words, let alone hold a simple conversation in Spanish. When I look around the urbanisation that I currently live on, the Eastern European cleaning staff have a level of Spanish that would put the average Brit, that's lived here for a decade to shame.
So what exactly is wrong with the British, why can't we learn other languages? Is it a question of laziness and complacency that "everyone speaks English anyway"? Could it be that we are stuck in a superior, coloniser mindset that the 'other' should learn our language for their own good? My own belief, based on what I have seen from living in the Costa del Sol, is that most British expats are desperate to be able to communicate in Spanish, or rather, Castilian. However, a number of factors hold us back.
Firstly, our naturally inhibitive culture prevents us from letting ourselves go. Therefore, we freeze whenever we have to communicate in a language other than our own. We hate to make a fool of ourselves by sounding silly in a foreign language so we stick to speaking in English, as it is the only language in which we can be taken seriously. Although, I previously disagreed that we still had a coloniser mentality, I do wonder if our reluctance to speak in another language apart from our mother tongue is our way of avoiding putting ourselves in the 'underdog' position. Therefore, we persist to speak in English, expecting to be understood by at least someone, in order to maintain an even power level.
When talking to friends about their experiences of learning Spanish, on courses here in Spain, many report that they have been heavily grammar orientated. It is often the case that beginners are presented with pages of verb tables and do very little conversation practise in the classroom. Such teaching methods do nothing to build the confidence of reluctant speakers and can actually do them more harm as they often become obsessed with grammatical correctness.
The consciousness of 'getting it right' can be very restrictive when trying to communicate spontaneously as is needed in everyday life situations. British people often fail to realise just what is required when learning Spanish. Many expect to be fluent after a few lessons. If only it were that easy, I would be fluent in about ten different languages by now.
Learning a language is never a fast project; in fact, it is a project that can never be completed. If you compare your English vocabulary today with ten years ago, you will realise that we are constantly working on our mother tongue never mind learning a second one. You have to accept that the learning pace is sometimes fast especially at the very beginning, but you often reach a plateau where you don't feel like you are progressing for months.
It is worth putting in some effort and finding some learning techniques that suit your learning style. Although, you can get through life without speaking Spanish on the Costa del Sol, life can get pretty frustrating at times and you will miss out, especially if you intend to stay.
It takes time to learn a language, requires commitment and regular input. Investing small, regular bursts of time is the most effective way of doing it. As a learner of languages, here are my top tips for learning whilst in the UK.
1) Enrol on an evening class. An obvious one maybe, but as Spanish is such a popular second language, there is bound to be a class in your area that fits into the busiest of schedules.
2) If you really can't make it to a class i.e. lack of childcare etc then once the kids are in bed log onto http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/, which is a great place to start and prepare yourself for your next trip to Spain.
3) Get Spanish television via satellite or digital and put on the subtitles to associate the sounds with the words.
4) Next time you are visiting Spain buy a few DVDs. You can find all the new releases, they're cheaper than in the UK and you can select either Spanish language or English. Perhaps watch the English first to get the story line and then the Spanish for the language input. If you've got young children perhaps get them a couple of DVD's. The language used for under 5's is pitched at an ideal level for adult beginners. Look out for 'Barrio Sesamo' (Sesame Street) and 'Los Lunnis' some Muppet type aliens, really popular with young Spanish children. Try the big supermarkets e.g. Carrefour, El Corte Ingles.
5) Listen to Spanish radio via the Internet to accustom your ears to the sound of the language.
6) Perhaps take in a Spanish student for a couple of weeks. Local schools and colleges often need local families to lend a room for a short period of time. A great opportunity to work on conversational Spanish.
7) Need an extra pair of hands around the house, help with kids, how about a Spanish au pair? A great way to introduce your children to the Spanish language.
8) Next time you visit Spain buy a couple of reading books for toddlers or pre-schoolers to learn the basics e.g. colours, parts of the body etc. Try El Corte Ingles, the big supermarkets, Imaginarium (Early Learning Centre equivalent toy shop)
9) Buy CDs by Spanish artists. Not only will you become familiar with the Spanish music scene, the rhyme and rhythm in songs can be an effective way of picking up vocabulary.
10) Hire a private tutor an hour or two per week. The lessons will be catered to your needs and it is more flexible than attending a class.
11) Ask your boss to send you for some Spanish language training.
12) Buy a course book and set aside ten minutes a day to work through it.
13) Be realistic and don't expect it to happen over night. It takes a while before it all starts to sink in.